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Sell yourself: the commodification of self-care

By Sophie Robinson

‘Just did my first lot of gradual tan and Olaplex treatment. Jesus, ‘self-care’ is exhausting’.

This message from my friend popped up on my phone the other week whilst I was in isolation after a positive Covid-19 test and, with nothing else to do, it got me thinking. Since when has something that is inherently supposed to make one feel better become an ‘exhausting’ ordeal? Consumerism has turned self-care into a profitable market, an almost unattainable ideal that leaves you feeling like you must spend a fortune on products and things to be able to relax. ‘Treat yourself’ has become a capitalist command and wellness has become a package deal.

To re-think self-care, it’s important to know its roots. Self-care originally caught on in the late 1960s as a medical concept, as a way for people implement healthy habits and look after themselves. Activists in the 60s recognised that poverty interrelated with ill health and argued that good health was crucial to topple the hierarchies. It became a political act at the rise of the women’s movement and civil rights movement, with people of colour and women claiming autonomy over their bodies as a political act against the failures of a patriarchal, white medical system. Martin Luther King Jr. said that “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.” The 1972 Black Community Survival Conference held in Oakland, California saw this idea conveyed by The Black Panther Party when people were informed about the Panther’s ‘survival programmes’ – nationwide clinics that tested for illness that was prominent within the black community, such as sickle-cell anaemia.

And these acts of reclaiming autonomy are still just as prevalent; minority communities are still discriminated against in the medical field, and often have to self-advocate for the correct care and treatment. For example, a 2015 study conducted by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services found that only 60% of Black and Latinx people aged 65 or over got a flu vaccination, compared to 70% of white and Asian people of the same age, and still to this day “We literally know less about every aspect of female biology compared to male biology” (Dr Janine Austin Clayton, associate director for women’s health research at the U.S National Institutes of Health). Self-care is a political act, and always has been.

However, for many people now who are fortunate enough to be prioritised by the health sector, self-care has become something different: the act of taking time and looking after yourself. Yet even that has its pitfalls. We’ve been conditioned to feel like we only deserve personal enjoyment after over-working. This product of capitalism has deemed rest and relaxation an act of laziness, instead of a necessary part of strengthening the human psyche. We shouldn’t have to reach breaking point to deserve time to recuperate.

So why, with all its powerful history and current advocacy, has self-care been warped into something different by the mainstream media? Simply put, it makes a profit. Today the self-care industry has rocketed into an estimated $10 billion dollar business, with a large portion coming from the beauty sector. Modern self-care seems to be a way to undo the stress of everyday life, put wellness first and prioritise your needs. But in a time where social media is king, plenty of its political significance has been severed. There seems to be an expectation of how self-care is practiced; the more aesthetically pleasing the better. Correspondingly, this expectation falls more heavily on women, no doubt a direct attempt by the industry to play into our insecurities so we feel worse and spend more. Of course, people should practice self-care however they choose, but it is dangerous to market beauty products as synonymous with self-care.

It’s time to think about self-care practically. Instead of buying into the multi-billion-dollar wellness market, let’s talk baby steps. Self-care should be laying the groundwork for a healthy mind and body: eating, hydrating, taking meds, doing the mundane everyday tasks that benefit you long term. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with pampering yourself, in fact there’s many psychological benefits to making yourself feel good just for the sake of it, but self-care isn’t about what you’re doing- it’s about the commitment you’re making behind every nurturing act. Take time off for yourself unprompted, spend time working on yourself mentally. Understanding the powerful history of self-care is crucial to practicing it productively. Without the stimulus of consumption, we transform self-care from a stressful act of keeping up appearances into practical acts that genuinely benefit us.

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